Making Change: Forum Held On Eminent Domain

The right of government to seize private property for public use by condemnation has generated a lot of controversy Northeast Ohio in recent years. The city of Lakewood failed in its 2003 attempt to take some houses on the city's west end, after national publicity spurred voters to block it at the polls. More recently, the dispute between some property owners in the Flats and developer Scott Wolstein has turned into a protracted confrontation in probate court. Parma Heights mayor Martin Zanotti says such cases have given eminent domain a bad name.

Martin Zanotti: It's emotional because the focus is always on those poster child cases where the individual home owner is losing their lifelong house for some profit-making reasons. The reality is that isn't what the majority of the eminent domain cases are. Most cases are much blander than that.

Zanotti was a panelist yesterday at an eminent domain forum sponsored by several Northeast Ohio business groups and area city officials. The Keynote speaker was a former Ohioan who is now a national economic development consultant, Jeff Finkle.

Jeff Finkle: This is a year of decision for Ohio.

Finkle believes the state should follow precedents set by Pennsylvania and New York which have put checks on the use of eminent domain. He says it's a key tool in reclaiming blighted property and making it easier for new businesses to move into areas that are hungry for jobs.

Jeff Finkle: If you make it more difficult for these businesses to locate close to where employment centers are, you're going to collapse the Ohio economy further.

Fairview Park mayor Eileen Patton says she's seen the positive effects of eminent domain in action.

Eileen Patton: In 2000, and 2001, we were able to use eminent domain as an economic development tool that has literally changed the face and the future of the city of Fairview Park. By being able to meld together all the acreages that we did - which consisted of 132 blighted motel rooms as well as a few residential structures and a little shopping center - we have now taken an area that generated $66,000 in taxes - income tax and property tax - and tripled it today.

Tim Grendell was an attorney for one of the motel owners in the Fairview Park eminent domain case. At the time, he argued that his client wasn't justly compensated for the seized property. Now, as a State Senator, Grendell has sponsored a bill which would restrict such uses of eminent domain. He is also calling for a constitutional amendment that would allow a set of uniform state rules to override decisions by individual cities.

Tim Grendell: The citizens in Cleveland should have the same protection when it come to the taking of their property as the people who live out on the farms and the villages and the townships throughout Ohio. So, I feel that the only way to reach uniformity is through a constitutional amendment.

Consultant Jeff Finkle disagrees, citing the need for local control over the use of eminent domain. Even in high profile cases like Lakewood.

Jeff Finkle: Lakewood was good from another point of view in that it was not solved by a constitutional amendment, was not solved by a Senate bill or House action. The local citizens were able to solve the problem locally.

At yesterday's forum, Senator Grendell noted that the Senate's eminent domain legislation working its way through the Statehouse is still open for discussion and revision. And members of the Ohio House may take until the Fall to decide on their final version. David C. Barnett, 90.3.

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